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Movie Review: Malcolm X (1992)

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The words “…by any means necessary,” conclude Spike Lee’s racist propaganda piece, Malcolm X.

This phrase asserting that the ends justify the means, a rationalization for tyranny throughout history, is the movie’s theme. Lee capably gives “by any means necessary”, which gained acceptance among black supremacists with the Black Panther movement during the rise of the New Left, and Black Panther founder Bobby Seale is featured among this cast of thousands, a cinematic flourish. Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington in the title role, is memorably distinctive.

Lee (Do the Right Thing) dramatizes the life of hoodlum Malcolm Little, who converted to Islam in prison, adopted the X and called for racial segregation, in broad but important strokes. As with the mediocre depiction of X’s peer, Martin Luther King, in Selma, this movie is fragmented and televisionary, not really epic in scope, and many scenes in the 3-hour movie are superfluous. But as with King at Selma, there is much in his life which is meaningful and from which the true freedom-fighter can gain and learn. Lee’s journalistic approach is often even-handed, though slanted and diminished by racism.

Malcolm X begins with an anti-homage to the famous scene from Patton (1970). An American flag writ large appears. It soon begins to burn. So commences Lee’s movie about x-ing out what America is founded upon, what America stands for, what America means. Blurry, black and white images of a Rodney King beating video that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots are seen, clearly establishing this film as more of a statement than a biographical picture.

Biographical fragments are pictured, typically very well, with early flashback scenes of the Ku Klux Klan attacking the Little family’s home near Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm’s father was a black separatist, too, a fact which is lightly treated, but he carried a gun and defended his family and the parallels to Tea Party activism are numerously unmistakable, though certainly this was not Lee’s intention.

Nevertheless, Little’s attempts at self-reliance, his hatred of government intervention in private lives—”the state agency destroyed my family”—and his admiration for the closest he could find to a man of honor (the always excellent Delroy Lindo) dramatize that his potential was real, his premises and choices were mixed and, whatever the rampant racism of American life, which was real, he had dominion over his own life. As with today’s persecuted Americans, including those targeted such as Tea Party groups by the government such as the IRS, Malcolm Little had control over his own life. Lee shows this. Lee shows that Little chose to be a con man, a thief, a hustler.

Mr. Washington’s smooth, arch portrayal captures the hustle in essentials. The hustle, which is partly an upright attempt to gain value and partly a downright play on putting one over on others, became Malcolm’s stock in trade. This is what he knew. That it morphed into a movement and gave birth to the race hustle—look for its main practitioner Al Sharpton in a cameo—should be noted by today’s cultural students and scholars. The hustle as Americans know it starts here with Malcolm X, who twists the self-made man into the self-made thug-turned-Moslem. It is mixed. It is born of real injustice. It could have gone either way.

Little first chose one way, crime and dishonesty, until he chose another way, which Malcolm X would have the audience believe was motivated by honest pursuit of the good: spiritual peace and honor through a radical, new intellectual import targeting the American Negro: the Nation of Islam.

With Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, The Amateur) as a prison priest who serves as the bogeyman—the “white devil”—for Malcolm to use to strengthen his newfound prison conversion to Islam, he slowly applies and integrates his worship of an Islamic deity, Elijah Muhammad, into his thinking, his habits and his practices. He wills himself into the man of faith, one without an ego, without thought. Seeking through Islam to free himself from “the prison of [his] mind”, Malcolm Little chooses to call himself Malcolm X, though curiously Malcolm X doesn’t make much of the name change, possibly because the X designation never caught on.

But Islam did and it is still spreading among non-whites in America, the targeted demographic by African Moslems, whom Malcolm visited in Africa, and it’s spreading to whites, too, as by now everyone knows. Lee romanticizes this particular religion, gently taking Angela Bassett’s meek Islamic woman, with whom Malcolm fell in love, from observant headscarf-wearing Moslem to uncovered housebound birthing vessel with not a trace of personality change other than her saintly concern for Malcolm and her marriage. The children are seen, not heard, and their father is never seen parenting them even for an instant. He’s more interested in giving speeches than in loving his wife or his children. Women are as segregated by the radical black Moslems as the races and this is depicted without judgment, and there is plenty of what would today be called “slut shaming”, again with not a whiff of castigation. Severe condemnation is reserved for whites only; as in today’s leftist circles, Islam and its archaic codes get a pass.

“The key to Islam is submission,” Malcolm X correctly states, so, in this sense, Malcolm X is honest. Malcolm X submits “100 percent”. One of the most interesting aspects of this star-studded movie, which is based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (Roots) and co-written by James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain), though his estate asked that his name be removed from the credits, is how it depicts the turn on Malcolm within the Nation of Islam. Led by Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), ironically evoking charges against the film’s financier, Bill Cosby, Malcolm’s incendiary rhetoric—he stated that he was “glad” JFK was assassinated and that the murder was an act of “justice”—made his ascent more problematic for the cult.

For his part, Malcolm, who agreed with racists such as Bull Connor and George Wallace that people should be judged and separated based on race—”the only thing I like integrated is my coffee”—appeared to have shifted in his thinking after the trip to Africa. Malcolm X shows that he had regressed from being meek, humble and servile to whites while working on trains (“yes, sir”) to being meek, humble and servile to blacks while working in mosques (“yes, sir”). It is also impossible not to notice nearly 25 years after this movie was made that the nations whose black African leaders are depicted in the backdrop of a street rally mural have been subjugated to a barbaric new Islamic caliphate that’s spreading across what was once known as the dark continent; Africa as a symbol for black supremacy has become a breeding ground for the forces of the most brutal religious doctrines known to man.

Most people know what happened to the small-time crook who took up with a white woman and became a man of faith, urging blacks to separate from whites, “get off welfare”, meet with Martin Luther King at Selma—curiously omitted here—and usher in a “time for martyrs.” He was brutally gunned down by black Moslems in Harlem. But his story is part of modern American history and, as I wrote in my review of distinguished black scholar Manning Marable’s epic biography, Malcolm X, any one who seeks to know how America came to be insidiously threatened with Islamic holocaust ought to study this part of history, which is inextricably linked with Americans’ refusal to explicitly name and renounce racism’s source, collectivism, leading American Negroes into philosophies for dying, not living, on earth. As Ossie Davis, who delivered Malcolm X’s eulogy in life and in this film, said of Malcolm X, and he intends this as a compliment: “He didn’t hesitate to die.”

Whatever its flaws, excesses and gaping holes, Spike Lee’s uneven Malcolm X at least dramatizes that Malcolm X, who may have succeeded in ushering in an era of self-sacrifice, didn’t really acquire the tools to live.

The 1992 picture screened with an appearance by the writer and director at TCM’s Classic Film Festival on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, a dull, unexceptional interview was conducted and Lee never did discuss the essentials of Malcolm X’s experience in life, including Lee’s treatment of Islam and how Islam has manifested in today’s world. There was no mention of the Islamic terrorist attacks on America in 1993, 2001 or 2012, let alone at Boston or other recent acts of war, or the fundamentalist Moslem morality of persecuting the homosexual, the woman and the infidel. Lee did discuss Denzel Washington’s decision to stop eating pork and drinking alcohol, in observation of Islamic practices, and hiring an Islamic camera crew to film certain scenes.

But it is a telling sign that Spike Lee was flatly refused admission to film in Mecca for Malcolm X, proving again that the “religion of peace” grants no peace to the infidel of any color. To his credit, Lee did shoot down a jab at the project’s original director, Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night), and come to Jewison’s defense, and he credited talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey with giving him the money to finish the movie when Warner Bros. balked. But, when I called out a question asking if he had read Manning Marable’s excellent biography of Malcolm X (read my review here), Spike Lee, in his New York Yankees’ cap, turned to me and gestured with an equivocal horizontal hand wobble, which is too bad, because the book is better than the movie and he might have gained new insight about an important figure in U.S. history.

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Movie Review: Gunga Din (1939)

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One of the greatest war movies and another reason besides Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz why 1939 is a legendary year in motion pictures, Gunga Din, played at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theater for TCM’s Classic Film Festival. It was introduced by Oscar winners Ben Burtt (Lincoln, Star Trek, Super 8) and Craig Barron (Hugo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America, Terminator: Salvation) in cooperation with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Though TCM tagged Gunga Din incorrectly as an adventure film, this unusually moving and humorous adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem of the same name is a character-driven story of friendship which ultimately, like American Sniper, depicts man at war, dramatizing what makes a man’s character. Originally assigned to director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo, The Thing), it is directed by the great George Stevens (Shane, Giant, A Place in the Sun). Written for the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the action pits three smart aleck British soldiers (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen), accompanied by a loyal Indian waterboy (Sam Jaffe), to fight barbaric religious fundamentalists in northern India.

The result is both light and gripping. The RKO studio’s special effects department, as Burtt and Barron pointed out while wearing pith helmets and providing drone-based footage of the Lone Pine, California location where Gunga Din was filmed, were ingeniously exploited to replicate the Khyber Pass. Shot near the Golden State’s Mount Whitney and Lake Sherwood in Ventura County during a 10-week schedule, the plot’s hard core is serviced by crackling, witty lines delivered by the picture’s masculine leading men. 

Gunga Din forewarns with its opening shot of a vulture and before long the colonial soldiers are venturing into a village where they are besieged by vicious natives. Amid the wisecracking, Cary Grant’s character kills with his bare hands and, for this picture’s jaunty reputation, its subtext of life and death is always on display. This is what drives Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who still elicits swoons in a packed movie palace audience, to heed his fiancee’s (Joan Fontaine) pleas to exit military service and get on with his life. His character’s imminent departure just as one of the British army trio falls into the belly of the beast with a diabolical Indian guru raises the stakes of the plot from the tension of shifting camaraderie in banter to the very essence of heroism in action.

As one of the men puts it in one of many great lines, referencing by implication that each soldier labors. marches and fights only in order to live for his own pursuits, “I’m a man first.” This is a short but winning sentence; a harsh, firm and swift rejection of the halfway, the approximate, the not-quite, which is everywhere in today’s approach to war (dramatized in American Sniper). That blistering line, which I’m glad to say drew applause, propels the powerful, and most meaningful, portions of Gunga Din.

The nature of the enemy is, in one of their own’s words, that of an “ugly little savage” complete with beheadings and the idea that they kill for the sake of the kill. As the waterboy acts to gain and keep a more noble status, as in Kipling’s poem, with the Western invaders in peril, Cary Grant as he is rarely seen states the film’s raw and truthful theme: “Here we are and this is it.” I haven’t experienced such rapt war movie silence in a movie theater—and the Egyptian was filled to its 600-plus capacity—since I saw grown men reduced to sniffles in American Sniper.

When distant bagpipes sound as the mystics of muscle slither, pull up and cower to ensnare the Brits, in skillful moviemaking which ranks with Zulu, Battle of the Bulge and other great war scenes, something extraordinary, genuinely extraordinary, happens which forever sears into the heart and melds into the beat of the drum corps, like a heartbeat so strong that it seems to keep on beating after it stops. Referencing Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon and Alexander the Great, Gunga Din combines every line of writing, direction of drama and special effect into a moment of glory. Final scenes, like the soldier’s last breaths, with tears depicting man at his best, for a change, wrest from one’s enjoyment of humor the wisdom which lies within an act of bravery. Gunga Din is an awesome, honest and breathtaking portrayal of one great man’s glory at war.

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Movie Review: So Dear to My Heart (1949)

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Screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2015, one of Walt Disney’s most personal films, So Dear to My Heart, introduced by film and Disney historian Leonard Maltin, is utterly charming.

The movie includes live action and a few brilliant scenes in poetically themed animation that align with and serve to enhance this wistful tale of a boy and his pet black sheep. Maltin explained that Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago and grew up on a farm in the Midwest, was inspired by the excellent My Friend Flicka (1943) to hire that picture’s director, Harold D. Schuster, for this heartwarming rural Indiana story’s adaptation from Sterling North’s Midnight and Jeremiah.

Disney “left him alone” to direct with Hamilton Luske and recreate Jeremiah’s (Bobby Driscoll) imaginative tale. Prepare for storytelling at a leisurely pace, when children were neither depicted as neurotic miniature adults nor as babbling dolts. The boy is the film’s focus, with his grandmother (Beulah Bondi as a hardened old farmwoman) and uncle (Burl Ives, as spot on as he is in every performance, never better and without the facial hair) busy working and giving the boy, known as Jerry, guidance and love. The girl pal is in the story, too, though she barely registers and hardly merits the DVD’s cover.

So Dear to My Heart is, like Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, very much a boy’s pet/coming of age story. The black sheep is born and rejected by the mother, so it’s immediately the subject of Jerry’s affection as he doesn’t have a mother, either. But his love for this animal begins with a bit of hero worship when he spots a world-famous race horse, Dan Patch, that stops in town on a rail car. How his uncle responds to the child’s amazement is itself a moment to cherish and every little detail about So Dear to My Heart lives up to the title’s sentimentality like that. The movie takes its time.

It wins you over. After the uncle (Ives) teaches the boy by example about trading and caring for one’s values, Jerry does his best to raise the wild, wayward beast, which is as fiercely independent as Jerry. Grandmother is a stoic old woman and she objects to every idea Jerry has about the lamb. But he’s a boy of the mind and bucks his grandmother’s stubborn opposition. Part of the conflict stems from the farm as a matriarchy and Jerry ditches tradition and dares to challenge her rules. Of course, he makes mistakes and the black sheep gets into all kinds of trouble and there’s heartbreak, too, but nothing a Disney movie in the studio’s earliest years doesn’t handle. Amid the tension of life on a family farm, granny dances with Uncle Hiram, who cleverly plays on her pride to weaken her ban on attending the county fair, which she sees as frivolous and exceeding the family budget.

“The greatest wealth a man acquires is the wisdom he gains from living,” comes one of the delightful cartoon sequences’ lessons, and Jerry gets his due in his dealings, especially a lesson in earning reward for achievement. One of the best parts of this simple, mid-American tale is its unadorned respect for hard, true work and the worldly, manly recognition for one’s achievement. The man who trades is depicted as heroic and the boy who thinks for himself gains from the effort. With animated scenes that include an outdated homage to Christopher Columbus—rhyming Spain with the fact that he “showed capacity for using his brain”—and an unfiltered reverence for “things of this world” against the Judeo-Christian grandmother’s stern admonishment, which is thoroughly, happily discredited and repudiated, that the boy spends too much time “thinking about [himself]”, So Dear to My Heart admiringly captures the summer of 1903 in the American Midwest.

That it does so with cheerful songs, animation and joyfulness—and one unforgettable lesson in trusting one’s judgment in order to make money—makes So Dear to My Heart an excellent motion picture and underrated early Disney studios classic. The movie’s Oscar-nominated song “Lavender Blue,” the first hit single for Burl Ives, is also made more melodic and featured in Disney’s recent masterpiece by Kenneth Branagh, Cinderella. The movie’s railroad station apparently served as the model for Disneyland’s Frontierland train station, too.

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TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

tumblr_static_5dtiby7w824os4k0g0c0s0k4sTurner Classic Movies’ 5th annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California, sorely missed the impeccable brand’s knowledgeable and elegant host, Robert Osborne, and experienced growing pains judging by feedback from its guests. But it is a uniquely rewarding cinematic experience.

My own festival track record is extremely limited. When I covered movies on assignment, I avoided film festivals. I remain dubious of the premise of each festival. Many seem to exist to circumvent a creative and distributive process that ought to work well in the motion picture industry. Or they exist for self-aggrandizement or worse, such as meaningless awards based on anything but merit or segregation according to race, sex or sexual orientation, which I think is a rotten idea. I think film festivals are fine if they’re based on a legitimate idea, such as recognition of an artist, genre or theme, such as Buster Keaton, silent film or history depicted in comedy. This is why I accepted an invitation to host the centenary series of John Wayne movies during an Orange County, California, festival in 2007.

This is also why I decided to attend TCM’s festival this year. Classic movies are certainly a legitimate topic for study and celebration. I’m glad I attended and I plan to post more extensive coverage in the coming days, including new reviews of films coming up on TCM (‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup). Among the movies: Too Late for Tears (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, Gunga Din (1939), Malcolm X (1992), Viva Zapata! (1952), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Sound of Music (1965). This last picture celebrates its 50th anniversary, which afforded the festival an opportunity to invite its surviving principals to a special showing at Grauman’s (now TCL) Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where co-star Christopher Plummer (The Man Who Would Be King, Malcolm X) pressed his hands into the Chinese’s famous forecourt.

In fact, the 50th anniversary screening was presented as the festival’s opening night gala, though new media was not permitted to attend the screening or the gala and the film’s stars, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, were not available for interview. They were there, looking good and doing scads of snippets and shots for television, and they were joined by others in attendance, including TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

Also attending were producer David Ladd (The Proud Rebel), 100-year-old Norman Lloyd (Limelight, Saboteur), who’s one sharp fellow, cast members from Grease, Robert Morse (The Loved One, TV’s Mad Men)Zach Galligan (Gremlins), who told me that he learned to focus from a master when he worked with Christopher Plummer, Diane Baker (The Diary of Anne Frank), editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), sound effects editor Ben Burtt (Lincoln, Star Trek, Super 8), visual effects artist Craig Barron (Hugo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America, Terminator: Salvation), Leonard Maltin and Anthony Quinn’s widow, Katherine, my favorite guest speaker for her sharp insights about the work of her late husband.

The festival’s theme was History According to Hollywood. From films about Mexican revolutionaries and Islamic radicals to the musical about a family fleeing the Nazis, the theme played well with TCM’s Mankiewicz, Leonard Maltin and others filling in for the ailing Robert Osborne throughout the festival. The site of the first Academy Awards® ceremony is the festival’s official hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and venues include Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and other Hollywood Boulevard and nearby picture houses.

21-year-old Turner Classic Movies (TCM)part of Turner Broadcasting System, a Time Warner company, presents great films uncut and commercial-free from one of the world’s largest film libraries. TCM features commentary and insights by Mankiewicz and Mr. Osborne, interviews, documentaries, series such as The Essentials, annual programming such as 31 Days of Oscar®, this annual festival and the TCM Classic Cruise, as well as the TCM Classic Film Tour in New York City and Los Angeles (review of the LA tour to come). TCM also produces books and DVDs and a databsae at tcm.com and through the Watch TCM mobile app.

Festival logistics pose a challenge because there’s so much to do and it’s held in a congested area. Between government road closures, which are common and sudden and can add 30 minutes to a pedestrian transport, and criminals and religious fanatics (Korean women screaming ‘please don’t go to hell!’ in broken English are an especially warm welcome), guests may feel lucky to make it from the Roosevelt to the Egyptian without being run over or assaulted. The dodgy area is policed by police officers that hide in shadowy corners chatting and generally not actively, visibly policing and that’s when they’re on patrol. One guest Tweeted that Loews overbooked and gave away her room, which she said she’d reserved in December, and she had no place to stay. Other gripes include overcrowding, spiked prices (packages went up this year, topping at $1,800) and a general sense that the quality of programming and organizing is not as high. People were peeved that TCM didn’t announce that Robert Osborne, the fountainhead of TCM, would not be attending as advertised until days before the commencement. Among media, consensus is that the red carpet was a bust.

The movies and guests comprise the whole value of the experience. These and a waiter at the Roosevelt named Ted who in one evening of exceptional service at the makeshift Club TCM (where the Oscars were first held) exhibited better branding and relationship building skills than everyone else in the 4-day conference combined. Guest demographics, and TCM’s viewers are the most passionate, knowledgeable, informed and intelligent moviegoers on earth, are overwhelmingly older and white, though not entirely, with the American middle class and upper middle class well represented. I met married couples from Long Beach, Atlanta and New York City, bloggers from Scotland, filmmakers and movie geeks from Hollywood and Asia and bright executives from TCM, the studios and movie industry centers around the world. It’s an amazing, whip-smart group of people. For instance, I talked with three young men from New York at the closing party whose favorite film was Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) starring Buster Keaton, which was accompanied by a live orchestra. These guys knew everything about the movie and its cast, history and availability. In my experience, the guests are better informed and more knowledgeable about movies than those asking questions.

My favorite part of the festival is watching movies with politically incorrect audiences and then speaking freely about the films, ideas and themes afterwards. It is refreshing and recharging. Everyone has a different perspective. Everyone has favorites. Everyone has constructive criticism of the festival, the industry, Hollywood and its environs. In other words, they’re freethinkers driven by values and a sense that the best in life is achievable, realizable and worth fighting for—and that the ideal can and ought to be projected in movies, then thought, written and spoken about with seriousness of purpose.

This is the best aspect of TCM’s Classic Film Festival; that movies once made should be seen, uncut and considered, discussed and, in a certain sense, revered. Reverence for classic movies, in keeping with the channel’s and company’s founder Ted Turner’s original vision, is what Turner Classic Movies does best. It’s what drives the channel, its products, growth and progress and its host and audience. It’s what keeps me watching TCM and wanting to see and talk about movies with those who do, too. Let others say “it’s only a movie”. TCM’s Classic Film Festival is for those who know better.

Music Review: Cinderella (2015)

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The Cinderella soundtrack is as lush, romantic and evocative as the film.

From the happy childhood theme for young Ella whose businessman father remarries following the death of her mother to the wicked stepmother music and the sweeping themes for the prince and his beloved, Patrick Doyle’s music is matched to what may be the year’s best picture.

As I wrote in the Cinderella movie review, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Disney feature is a deeply emotional and thoughtful epic about an innocent child who becomes a woman, the man who falls in love with her at first sight, their losses, trials and injustice by those who betray the best within and what it properly means to be rescued. The music (available through Amazon; click on the soundtrack cover to buy) is only fast and urgent in “The Pumpkin Pursuit” and cues and pieces for other action scenes that play better here than on film. Favorites will depend upon which of the movie’s multiple layers of subplots, themes and pictures resonate, from the father-son moments, which are some of the best ever made in Hollywood, and mother-daughter scenes, to hard, painful scenes of the evil woman who comes to enslave the child. My personal favorites constitute triumphant picture music (“Ella and Kit”, “Valse Royale”, “A Secret Garden”) of the happy couple letting go of the past to embrace a new, self-made future. “You Shall Go” is also glorious, underscoring that the fairy godmother, a beggarwoman, is the antithesis of the hyperfeminine matriarch. “Who is She” brings the ball to the forefront of one’s memory. “The First Branch” tenderly calls upon the film’s parent-child love. “Courage and Kindness” does nicely by the theme of the whole man. A couple of pop songs are included, though, unfortunately, Disney chose not to include the film’s “Lavender Blue” song.

Mr. Branagh worked well with composer Patrick Doyle, whom I first discovered in 2003 with his wistful score for Tim McCanlies’ Secondhand Lions, on Thor for Marvel (2008) and their collaboration also succeeds here. The charming, serious and intricately detailed Cinderella, an essentialized indulgence in old-fashioned romanticism blended with a radical rejection of conservatism, is both rare and original. That Patrick Doyle’s score is as slow, gentle and romantic as the movie makes for a perfect fit. So this is what falling and being in love sounds like.


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